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A Merdeka movie review: “Citizens” Or The audacity of our Malaysian Hope

Rare is a politician who reviews movies, just as rare as one who acts in movies.

Pete Teo and Liew Seng Tat, the highly talented Malaysian filmmakers, have created yet another amazing short film recently, in conjunction with our 60th Merdeka celebrations.

The stars are no less than Transport Minister and president of MCA Liow Tiong Lai himself and his wife Lee Sun Loo.

The six-minute film titled ‘Citizens’ explores the deep-seated psychological struggle of a federal minister whose government and party are highly unpopular.

A psychological monologue

The short film is essentially a psychological monologue: The minister talking to his inner self, portrayed as a poor and unkempt, angrier version of his ego/himself who was in turn, smartly dressed, assertive and calm.

It is interesting to see how the minister’s inner self is portrayed as a citizen. Perhaps this was also his conscience, who realised the waywardness of the government.

The ego has a very persistent problem of autocratic and greedy behaviour as evidenced by how he went ahead to make coffee in a place which was not his house. His excuse when criticised by the actual house owner: “You told me to make myself at home.”

This clearly demonstrated the minister’s own confusion about the power given to him and his party during the election as absolute power to do anything. It ignored the fact that in a democratic system, the government is given power to act only in the interest of the people. That is the extend of the power entrusted by voters to the government during elections.

The sweets

The minister knew what the problems were. Yet, on the pretext that he would not try to give excuses – which is not true, because he did give excuses about being asked to make himself at home – he refused to offer any explanation for all the anxieties faced by the citizen/conscience.

Instead, in a Freudian moment, he offered “sugar” (sweets) to silent his probing conscience.

The minister, however, expressed his regrets and sadness about the country’s current situation. He begged the citizen to set those problems aside for now and cleverly diverted him to look to the country, instead of the government.

The citizen, of course, would not be satisfied. And both of them got into a verbal tussle.

The minister’s conscience refused to let him get away easily. He could not hide the government’s problems behind the country in the same way that we must not just care for the victim and forget to deal with the perpetrator.

In another Freudian moment, the citizen threw the “sweets” on the table at the minister, as if refusing the latter’s “sweet talk” and “bribery”.

Saying sorry

If you ask me, the climax of the short film must be the part when the minister acknowledged that he has not done enough, and that indeed, the government has failed in certain areas.

Was that amounting to an apology?

It is interesting to note that the only straightforward “sorry” was uttered towards the end of the film, by the citizen, the conscience of the minister, for the mess he made on the table when he threw a tantrum at the minister.

Alas, the conscience was indicted for protesting, for creating chaos, for showing his anger at the government even though the anger was clearly well-founded.

But what if the minister had actually apologised?

An apology is never merely an apology, especially when uttered by someone in high office. Some time ago, I wrote about prime ministers apologising:

“Do not be conned when a prime minister said he is sorry when he failed to deliver his job in public office, it is not like friends saying sorry to one another. A lousy friend can be tolerated, but not a lousy prime minister.

“A friend with flaws is different from a prime minister with flaws. A silly friend is amusing or even fun to be with, but a silly prime minister is destructive to the country.

The prime ministership is a public office, we entrust him to do his job with perfect effort if not perfect result. If he cannot deliver, the party’s over for him, no charming selfies or cute personal touch should save him from the sacking.”

In Japan, for example, a genuine apology from an office holder is always followed by an action – to vacate one’s position.

For an apology to mean, “Let’s set aside everything and move on with business as usual”, that is madness.

Just like it is madness to imagine that after 60 years of doing the same thing, we should expect a different result if we continue like this for the next 60 years.

Imagining hope

Perhaps as a nation, we need this frank monologue.

Just like the minister, we need this psychological struggle, not so much between us, but within us.

It is easy to give up, looking at the situation around us – who can blame us, political parties are not getting their acts together, both sides!

The Teo-Liew duo brilliantly created a Lacanian mirror towards the end with the minister and citizen both seated opposite one another. First the citizen was revealed to be the subject, looking into the image of his own ego who is prim and proper but fell short of the ideal of a good leader.

And then the minister looked at the citizen, who now is the ego, angry and dejected.

There is a sense of inadequacy and alienation. Something is wrong.

Yet, the minister reminded us that we must not give up on hope. I agree but only halfway.

Of course, we can all imagine that everything will be alright because a big birthday bash is coming up.

We can all imagine that everything will be alright because we put up a flag.

We can all imagine that the alternative will be more chaotic and scary, and hence we will just continue with the status quo.

The thing is, I have argued before that our imagination is not too strong but too weak.

Don’t get me wrong. In fact, I have written that we should indeed imagine everything is alright.

We should imagine that goodness exists, despite the anxiety. In fact, even if you are really cynical, pretend that goodness does exist!

Pretend that justice exists, human rights exist, good governance exists, democracy exists.

Live as if there is justice, you may seem naive, people may laugh at you, but demand justice, pursue it, and provide it. It will always be easier and more convenient to pay our way out of trouble, for example when we receive a traffic ticket, but no, pretend and live as if justice exists.

Demand good governance from your government at all levels: local, state and federal. Demand as if it is a normal thing to be expected, even for the failed system in Malaysia. Pursue good governance like a naive young child whose little heart is not yet tainted with the cynicism of “we have no choice, that’s the way things are”.

Refuse to accept anything other than good governance. It is immensely easier to submit to fate so but don’t. Do not ever get used to lousy deals.

Perhaps that is what the film is all about. Imagination. The courage to imagine hope. The “hoping against hope” moment, the audacity that creative people like Pete Teo and Liew Seng Tat, or even those presumably responsible for our problems like the minister, have for our beloved country.

Now, do not for a moment think that such audacity is mere fantasy.

Think about it: Imagine that democracy exists. Imagine we are a true democracy where the people’s voice matters, even here in Malaysia. Go campaign and vote for change as if all of that really matters!

As if changes will come, as if the regime will honour the vote you cast. As if the election is not rigged – yes I know it’s naive, I told you so – but demand and pursue democracy as if it is real, even here in Malaysia.

If enough people imagine that democracy is real and works for us and live as if it is and does. If enough people demand democracy no matter what, until we get it, if enough people imagine that our votes count and thus insist to go out to vote; now tell me if that is not a revolution waiting to happen.

Didn’t former US president Barack Obama himself talk about the audacity of hope?

An alternative ending

The film ends with the citizen now left alone with his wife pondering if he should put up the Jalur Gemilang as he presumably does every year during the Merdeka celebration.

He finally did. A good ending, indeed.

But imagine – yes, again, imagine – an alternative ending.

Imagine the citizen telling his wife – echoing a lot of commentators on social media after watching the film: “No, the Minister was wrong. I have never given up hope on Malaysia, it is only the government whom I have given up hope on.

And yes we’ll put up a flag this year but more than that, we will show our love for Malaysia by voting in the next election.

Very blatant and not so artistic. Perhaps Teo and Liew could have choreographed it better.

But the message is simply this: Patriotism too, is never merely patriotism. If we truly love our country, we must be audacious enough to imagine that something radically different, and wonderful, will take place for her.

And like the mother who envisioned her child to be someone great in the future, we must ourselves roll up our sleeves, get into the mud, get down to work, to make sure it will happen.

Happy Merdeka. Happy Malaysia Day.

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